Don’t have a scanner? Use a digital camera

Sometime in the past couple of years, I needed to scan a document and was lamenting the fact that I didn't have a scanner. And then it occurred to me (or maybe someone else suggested it, I'm not sure): for most of my purposes, a digital camera does exactly the same thing as a scanner, only faster and more conveniently.

If you need a high-quality artwork scan, then a digital camera probably isn't sufficient. And I don't know how feasible it is to do OCR on a photo from a digital camera.

But if you just need to create a human-readable computerized image of a page of text? Just snap a photo.

Maybe this approach is obvious. But I've seen other people run into the same conceptual barrier, being unable to do something because they didn't have a scanner but not realizing a photo from their cell-phone camera would work just as well, so I figured it was worth sharing the paradigm.

If you have an iPhone, you can go a step further and download the free Genius Scan app, which provides some extra tools to make photos even more like scanning.

3 Responses to “Don’t have a scanner? Use a digital camera”

  1. Sumana Harihareswara

    I do this, too. Thanks for the writeup!

  2. Tim Czerkowsky

    I use a Scanner App called Docutain, which I can recommend. It scans and does OCR locally on the device in very good quality.

  3. Jed

    In the nearly 14 years since I wrote this post, a lot has changed. Among other things, I feel like the use-a-camera-to-scan approach has become very common, especially among my younger friends.

    I don’t know Tim Czerkowsky, and the fact that they gave their URL as a link to Docutain leads me to suspect that they may have a connection to the company. I’ve removed the link, but it was a link to the Docutain SDK (for programmers to use to incorporate scanning features into their apps) rather than a link to the Docutain app (which I’m unfamiliar with, but I suspect it’s primarily to demonstrate the features of the SDK). But I’m leaving the comment in place just in case it might be useful to someone.

    While I’m here, I may as well add two recommendations of my own:

    • I find Evernote’s scanning app, “Scannable,” super useful. It automatically detects documents that you point the camera at; it can deal with multi-page documents; it can send the results to Evernote or Google Docs or various other options. The UI is a little clunky in some ways, but it’s nonetheless my go-to app for this sort of thing these days.
    • In contexts where you need heavier-duty scanning, especially if you want to scan pages of a printed book, I highly recommend the CZUR Aura. It’s a piece of hardware—essentially a camera on a fixed mount—with associated software. It does things like automatically flattening out images of curved pages, and the built-in OCR is the best I’ve seen. This recommendation is pretty tangential to the main point of my post here, except inasmuch as the Aura demonstrates that you can get excellent scanner-like capabilities from a device that takes a single all-at-once silent photo rather than a slow loud camera-moves-across-the-page device.

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